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This article is taken from PN Review 83, Volume 18 Number 3, January - February 1992.

The Shaping of Modern French Poetry: Rhythms of Re-Enactment Roger Little

ANY IDEA which runs counter to current thinking is bound to prompt enthusiasm from radicals and dismissal from reactionaries. Equally, however, it should not be imagined that Cratylian nostalgia sprang up, as it were, fully clad, after lying dormant for centuries, when the first prose poem was published. The principle of a shaping force for poetry other than the conventions of versification had disappeared underground for so many generations that when it re-emerged after ages of neglect it did so very tentatively. Poets showed their awareness of the principle long before the critics, but at first the point was made within the forms of traditional verse. So André Chénier, who was to die on the scaffold in the Revolution, could write both that 'Chaque chanson nouvelle a son nouveau langage' (which is absolutely central to the principle of re-enactment) and that 'L'art ne fait que des vers; le cœur seul est poète' (which unhappily steers the concept towards Romantic self-indulgence). In De l'Allemagne (1810), Mme de Staél records the sense of unease brought about by the new awareness: 'Le despotisme des alexandrins force souvent à ne point mettre en vers ce qui serait pourtant de la véritable poésie.' With Les Orientales (1829), Hugo flexed his versifying muscles to show an important lead in the practice of verse adapting to its subject-matter so as to produce a total effect with a sense of absolute rightness which went beyond the crude critical division of form and content. His choice of exotic ...


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